A Conversation With Greil Marcus

'There’s a way in which this new book of mine is still a 1966 Berkeley American Studies book.'

Greil Marcus. (Getty Images)
Greil Marcus. (Getty Images)

In his slim new book, the rock critic Greil Marcus meditates on three songs. They include Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” In a trio of searching essays, Mr. Marcus examines these “seemingly authorless songs,” as he explains, “as bedrock, founding documents of American identity.”

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Mr. Marcus, who is 70, is the author of such classic books of music criticism as Mystery Train—which turns 40 this year—Lipstick Traces and Invisible Republic. His latest work is called Three Songs, Three Singers and Three Nations, and it comes out in October. (Another book, Real Life Rock, a collection of Mr. Marcus’s Top Ten columns, will also be released, by Yale University Press, next month.) 

On a recent afternoon, we met at the Cornelia Street Cafe, in the West Village, to discuss the book, which is based on a series of lectures Mr. Marcus gave at Harvard in 2013. Over the course of an hour and a half, we talked about many things, like why he loves YouTube and which writers have affected his thinking the most. I had a beer; Mr Marcus had nothing.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” strikes me as the weirdest song in the book. It really latches on to you. When did you first listen to it?

Probably around 1970. I had been at Altamont, that horrible Rolling Stones concert, at the end of 1969, where a guy was murdered in the crowd and other people were killed. It was really just a day of ugliness and violence and cruelty, and it really made me not want to listen to rock ‘n’ roll anymore. For a year, I didn’t. I listened to old blues and country music, which was all new to me. Of the things I listened to was the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, and on it was the song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” I was struck by the banjo playing more than anything; it just seemed like it had started long before the recording began and kept going long after everybody walked out of the studio; there’s something inexorable and permanent about it. As time went on, I became interested in the words and the way Bascom Lamar Lunsford was singing in 1928, and so it just became a kind of cosmology.

Before I read your book, I was thinking that there might be some definitive explanation of the song’s meaning, but I guess it doesn’t really make much sense.

I think it makes a lot of sense, and whatever sense you think it makes or I think it makes, the next time we listen to it, it makes a different kind of sense. So it’s very unstable. For some people, it’s just totally obvious that this is a song about sex.

Oh, that didn’t occur to me.

I listened to it for maybe 30 years before that occurred to me. And it didn’t really occur to me—it was hearing Bob Neuwirth sing his version of the song, where instead of saying “I wish I was a lizard in the spring” he says “I wish I was a lizard in your spring.” And it’s just like the curtains are drawn back. On the other hand, it’s clear that this is a song about anger and rage and resentment and the desire to destroy; all those things are intermingling. This is a song that came together over many generations, and at some point, for some people, it made sense to take verses from a whole set of songs about a people, and a whole set of songs about sex, and move them together in a different kind of song. Nobody knows how that happened.

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Isn’t that the point of your book? That all these songs feel like they were just sort of put together?

Right, and the book starts with one song, “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” that was actually written by a particular person at a particular time, and it was completely made up. It had traditional elements in it, but it’s a Bob Dylan song. It doesn’t feel like that, though; it feels like a song that’s always been there. It sounds like a song that was written by the Depression, not a person. So it has the same aura as a song like “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” which really was written by nobody we could ever trace, and then in the middle there’s “Last Kind Words Blues” by Geeshie Wiley, which has elements that appear in many, many other songs but they’re tweaked and twisted so that they come out differently.

“Ballad of Hollis Brown” doesn’t seem to be the song that people bring up when they talk about The Times They Are a-Changin’.

It’s the only Bob Dylan album that I’m aware of, even the Christian albums, where there’s no humor at all, where there’s nothing remotely light or funny. It’s very one-dimensional, and “Ballad of Hollis Brown” is just about this guy; it’s not about the world; it’s not about war; it’s not about generations; it’s not about racism; and yet, musically, it may be more alive than anything else on the record, so that’s one of the reasons it’s always had a life; it’s never gone away; people have always returned to it. You go on YouTube and you find dozens of versions of the song.

Is YouTube where you make a lot of discoveries these days?

You bet. You look for something. Maybe you look for it because you want to check something, you want to check your memory of a lyric or something, and then three hours later you’re still there.

Do you find that you listen to fewer albums and more snippets now that the way we experience culture seems to be sort of fragmented?

No, not really. When I listen, I tend to put stuff on—old stuff, new stuff—and just let it play and do something else. And then something will leap out, and I’ll say, what’s that? Maybe it’s something I know but never heard that way before, or maybe it’s something I’ve never heard before, and then I may play the whole album all day, just listening to it over and over again. That’s really the way I listen.

So you let music grab hold of you instead of trying to grab hold of something yourself. That sounds refreshingly natural. Often, when I listen to music, I feel like I have to sit there and engage in the act of listening or else I’ll miss something, which ends up making me sort of self-conscious.

I don’t like to listen that way. I’ll listen that way when I need to check something. But I think that music is part of life, it’s part of the atmosphere, it’s part of the conversation we live in. You don’t go up to one of your friends and say, Tell me something really profound today that I’m going to remember and want to tell other people about. Your friend is going to say, What? And that’s going to be the end of the conversation. So when you approach a song, and you say, in essence, Tell me something profound, it won’t.

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In the last section of the essay on Geeshie Wiley, you imagine a life for her, because no one knows much of anything about her biography. How did you come up with that?

It was just something that occurred to me one day. I normally don’t believe in fitting somebody’s life to their work; I think their biography is pretty much irrelevant to their work, but what appealed to me was writing her life as if it were itself a song. And so it has a melody and it has a rise and a fall and it ends with a grace note. I wanted to keep the story going longer than facts or my listening could support. I tell you what I hear in the song. I can’t tell you anymore. I’m not somebody else. Somebody else might hear something else.

But what you hear seems to be what a lot of people want to hear.

Maybe. But, I just loved the idea of putting her together with Elvis and Jimi Hendrix and Frankie Baker. Everything in that story could have happened exactly as it happened. Elvis really did play in Seattle on that day; Jimi Hendrix really was there; Frankie Baker really did live in Portland.

What did you make of the John Jeremiah Sullivan story in last year’s Times Magazine, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” which did reconstruct some of the the events in Geeshie Wiley’s life. You mention it in your book.

He and I have never met, but we’ve been corresponding for years. And his fascination with “Last Kind Words Blues” and Geeshie Wiley started 20-some years ago when I wrote a piece about the song for Oxford American, and he was the fact-checker for the magazine. So when he began to try and actually find out who these people were, without knowing anything, except that he had the good hunch to go to Mack McCormick in Houston because Mack McCormick knows more than anybody, he and I were in constant touch during the time that he was doing his research and making these incredible discoveries, some of which turned out to be dead ends, most of which didn’t.

There were some people who questioned the ethics of Sullivan using the information from Mack McCormick’s personal archive as a foundation for all of the other discoveries he made in the piece.

That’s something that John struggled with enormously. He and I would go back and forth. I wasn’t judging; I wasn’t trying to tell him what to do, but we would discuss this question, and it’s like, this is important to the history of the country: the world needs to know this; on the other hand, you’re stealing it. But it’s not the law, it’s not like on Law and Order when they’re always saying, “This is the fruit of the poison tree; you can’t eat this evidence.” It isn’t the law, and while I’m sure Mack McCormick was upset and angry and maybe will never speak to John again, I think deep down when somebody makes this stuff available to you, they want the world to know about it.

It seemed like, for a lot of people, that article was an introduction to the music of Geeshie Wiley and L.V. Thomas, which doesn’t hurt. Dwight Garner’s celebration of Mystery Train, which turns 40 this year, probably introduced a bunch of new readers to your work, too. You must have been flattered by it.

I was thrilled. To write a book that came out 40 years ago and to have it still be alive. That’s not something you can just make happen; that’s a great gift. And to have someone say things that I could never say, like this is the “best book ever written about being alive”—O.K., I’ll kill myself now, it’s not going to get any better than this. It’s not flattering so much as it makes you feel like you have something to live up to. You know, I was 27, 28 years old when I wrote that book. That was a long time ago. And I think it’s good. The writing’s good. I think I’m a better writer now, but it’s possible that I don’t have as good a story to tell the world now as I did then, or as a new a story. I don’t know

You mention, in the introduction, certain books that are in your personal kind of foundational cannon, like Tocqueville and Pauline Kael and D.H. Lawrence. Has the list expanded?

Yes and no. I was an American Studies student at Berkeley as an undergraduate, and pretty much as a graduate student, too. This was the stuff that I was fascinated by, obsessed by. Whether it was Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln. This stuff was alive to me. Bob Dylan talks in his memoir Chronicles about how in the Greenwich Village folk world of the ’50s and ’60s, all these things that happened in these old folk songs like President Garfield being assassinated or something like that, he said it’s happening right now, this is present tense, there’s no distance. The Civil War didn’t happen 100 years ago; it happened last week; it’s still going on. He talks about how history flips; one day you find it in your lap.

And at Berkeley at the time, early-mid-60s to the early-70s, the feeling was the same. People were discussing such fundamental issues—is the Declaration of Independence real? who was Jefferson?—those questions were immediate. They all had to do with things we were doing every day, with battles we were fighting and arguments we were having about life right then. That’s the world I came out of. That’s the world that I put into that book, Mystery Train, and I’ve gone back to those books over and over and over again, whether it’s Leslie Fiedler, Pauline Kael, D.H. Lawrence—these are the people who made me want to write, and made me understand that when you write about culture, about art, you can write about anything, you have to write about everything. And so while I have read some books since then and seen some movies and listened to some music, that’s still a force, it really is. You know, there’s a way in which this new book of mine is still a 1966 Berkeley American Studies book.

The way you write feels very improvisational. Like, in Three Songs, there’s a place where you refer to a passage from Richard Hugo’s poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” and then move right on, if I remember right, to a passage from Geoff Dyer’s book on jazz, But Beautiful. It’s sort of shamanistic when you do it on the page.

It’s just the way my mind works. And Geoff Dyer’s book, that’s another book that’s become a touchstone for me. It’s so empathetic and so lovely. I found out about that book from my brother-in-law, who’s a psychoanalyst. I’d never even heard of Geoff Dyer at all. In But Beautiful, he’s intuiting how somebody would be in their ordinary life based on the music they make. What a bizarre thing to do.

When you do make those associations, do they just come to you?

Yeah, but when you make that kind of association, and maybe put it on the page, then you say, Well, does this work, is this going to make sense to somebody else? It was a leap in my mind, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense to somebody else. So you go back and you contextualize it. But to me, I don’t know any other way to write or any other way to think, if you want to call it thinking. I’ll be writing something, I’ll think of this passage about Chet Baker from Geoff Dyer’s book, and I’ll think, I want to use that, where can I put it to make this part of the story?

Do you keep a Google doc or have a notebook of quotes and passages you like?


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Michael Lesy’s book Wisconsin Death Trip, which you mention in the section on “Ballad of Hollis Brown” as an example of the kind of world Dylan might have been singing about, also reminds me of what it’s like to read your stuff. Lesy’s sort of like a hypnotist who takes you on this weird, free-associative ride.

And he draws unsupportable conclusions from very little evidence, which people have accused me of doing. But there’s a certain kind of critical work where that’s what you do. That’s certainly what Geoff Dyer does; not that I’m saying I write on his level. That’s what you have to do. When you’re writing criticism, or thinking critically, to draw a very limited minor conclusion from solid evidence is really not thinking. The thing is to trust your imagination, to follow when it leaps, to track down your own steps and see where you arrive and say, My God, how did I get here? And then you go back and you figure it out and it begins to make a certain kind of sense and you can make an argument or a story out of that.

Michael Lesy certainly does that. His book came out two years before my first book, but I didn’t read it until later in the ’70s, and when I did, it was one of those books where I really just felt an instant kinship with him. This guy’s doing the kind of work I wish I could do. And we’ve since become very good friends. I thought, I understand what he’s doing, and I bet he’d understand what I’m doing. And that’s happened occasionally. I felt that way with Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. I felt, this is another another writer with the courage of her own imagination.

“I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” seems to be the song that’s affected you the most, of the three songs in the book.

Probably. I’ve lived with it the longest with the most intensity. In other words, that song—I heard it 45 years ago, and it’s never worn out for me; it’s never become boring; I don’t know everything about it; and there’s something really cruelly unknowable about his singing. Like, his song is being sung by a stone, not a person, that’s the feeling. And he recorded hundreds and hundreds of traditional songs, both commercially and for archives, and none of his other recordings that I’ve heard—I haven’t heard them all—feel like that, sound like that. In other words, he had to rise to the song. To say “I wish I was a mole in the ground,” you have to convince somebody that you really mean that. And if he does, oh my God, what does it mean to want to be a mole?

There’s a phrase from Greek mythology that Hannah Arendt, another touchstone of mine, quotes at the end of her book On Revolution. She quotes this line, Not to be born transcends all meaning and words. Which means, the greatest thing in life would be not to be born. And that is the feeling you get from “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” that while I can’t not be born, I am born, I have the burden of consciousness, I have the burden of history, I have the burden of the future on me, but since I am born, since I do exist, what I can wish for is that I barely exist, that I’m not a man but a mole.

A Conversation With Greil Marcus